Dominion is polling its customers for pro-monopoly arguments

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Jamie Nolan was a bit surprised when she got a call at home from a pollster asking about messages to that would help a utility both fend off both retail electricity suppliers and maintain its monopoly.

As a public relations professional, she has the exact skill set that Dominion Energy is paying for in order to gain these insights. But as former press officer for Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and former communications director for Chesapeake Climate Action Network, she is also someone who any process of screening respondents would have taken off the list of people who might supply a utility-friendly answer.

Apparently they weren’t screening, and so instead Nolan was able to provide insights to pv magazine about the messages that Dominion is planning on using to fight off legal or regulatory changes that could allow corporations to bypass it and procure renewable energy directly, and challenges to its monopoly.

According to Nolan, the pollsters asked her if she found two arguments compelling: 1) the claim that ratepayer bills will go up $100 per month if corporations are allowed to procure their own renewables, and 2) that in the states where deregulation was introduced, that customer rates rose 39%.

The first argument is deeply questionable; while there are a number of markets like Nevada where large customers have left to buy power elsewhere, a near-doubling of rates for residential customers wasn’t among the results.

Nolan also says that the questions suggested that Dominion is considering using the Enron Scandal as an argument in fight against competition, as well as using the threat that rates will rise on low-income customers and the elderly.

“They are trying to get a baseline for what ratepayers understand,” Nolan told pv magazine. She also noted that there was no attention to environmental issues in the questions being asked.

 

Threats to Dominion’s monopoly

Those who have seen the repeated debunking of utility claims that there is a “cost shift” onto other customers who use solar know that there is nothing new about utilities using inaccurate arguments to control conditions and maximize their profit.

But Dominion has even more reason to be concerned. The utility’s polling comes amid increasing calls by both corporations that want access to solar on their own terms, and an array of political, environmental and anti-poverty groups spanning the political spectrum that are seeking to break up the utility and provide full retail choice to consumers.

Costco, Cox, Kroger, Sam’s Club, Target and Walmart have all petitioned state regulators for permission to buy electricity from sources other than Dominion; however the State Corporation Commission on June 1 denied a request by Costco to aggregate 27 of its retail accounts in order to allow it to circumvent the utility, citing sections of state law that explicitly enforce Dominion’s monopoly.

The Costco case is particularly instructive. While Dominion is seeking to shift the argument to the cost on other ratepayers, Costco’s witness is alleging that Dominion’s rent-seeking behavior is what is driving up costs. “Dominion has been over-earning on its frozen base rates for a number of years,” argued a Costco witness in the case. “It is enormously frustrating that an incumbent utility has an incentive to keep what I view as the customer’s money.”

A new threat to Dominion’s power has emerged in the form of the Virginia Energy Reform Coalition, which brings together Libertarian groups with environmentalists and rural non-profit Appalachian Voices in a call toestablish a well-designed, competitive retail electricity market,” set up an independent grid operator, streamline interconnection standards, and make other changes.

There is also the example of California, where community choice aggregators are taking over an increasingly larger share of procurement from the state’s investor-owned utilities. And while such changes may take time to filter out to the rest of the nation, it may also be that those utilities that have been most confident in their position and resistant to change will be the first to go – carefully crafted messaging or no.

 

Correction: This article was corrected at 1:45 PM EST on August 12. The article originally stated that Dominion’s polling was proposing the claim that customer bills would go up 100%; instead they are proposing the claim that customer bills will go up $100 per month. We have changed the text and find the claim to be absurd in either case.